Still learning about early learning in Ethiopia

By Jack Rossiter, Young Lives, Ethiopia

The potential of O-Class in Ethiopia

Credit: Young Lives

In 2017, the research study I work for, Young Lives, released its first early learning publication: Scaling up Early Learning in Ethiopia: Exploring the Potential of O-Class [O-Class is a one-year pre-primary program, delivered by primary schools, organized for children before they enter Grade 1]. That paper concludes with a caution from a South African early learning specialist:

“’We shouldn’t put a bad [Reception Year] onto a primary school system facing many challenges simply because we have the money to roll it out’.”

While the evidence points to the potential of investing in early childhood, when it comes to delivering on that potential in a low-resource setting, there are many different routes to take in the design of ECCE, many of which, if not careful, can result in ‘bad reception years’ being tagged onto an already stretched primary education cycle. As the working paper notes, “at worst, mediocre ECCE programmes will not compensate for mediocre school systems; and children (especially poor children) will be the losers, and the promise of investment in ECCE scale-up will not be realised.”

The working paper explores the role for ECCE programmes in strengthening education systems to build sustainable futures using Ethiopia as a case study. It reports on Ethiopia’s remarkable progress in increasing access and enrolment in ECCE and investigates the challenge faced in delivering the potential of well-planned, quality programmes to scale. To understand this challenge, we must step beyond national enrolment statistics – and the working paper does just that.

Beneath the veil of the Gross Enrolment Rate

Credit: Young Lives

Young Lives’ exploratory fieldwork to support scale-up of ECCE in Ethiopia is funded by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and is delivered in collaboration with the Ministry of Education’s School Improvement Program (SIP) Directorate. This Directorate has federal responsibility for ECCE and faces an uphill struggle to provide programs that can keep up with the rate of change in communities.

The following two charts are an example of the sort of simple – yet informative – collaborative work that can inform our policy and programs. The first shows the increase in gross enrolment rates in early learning programmes in Ethiopia since 2003-04. It’s a representation of remarkable efforts by the government and community. But it doesn’t tell much of the story.

The second takes us forward, by examining enrolment shares in O-Class by age. The government target is for 6 year olds to join O-Class before starting school at age 7. What the data show, however, is that most students enrolled in O-Class are below the target age of 6 years – in other words, aged 5 or younger. In addition, the share of such under-age children increases between 2011 and 2014.


So what? Education researchers are often more concerned with over-age enrolment, but while these younger children are certainly helping boost the national enrolment rate, their attendance in O-Class raises more than a few questions. What is it like to be in an O-Class with 3 year olds, 4 year olds, 5 year olds, 6 year olds and sometimes also 7 year olds running around in the same space? How do these multi-age classes work in practice? What do parents expect their children to gain from being in these classes? Is it an efficient way to provide for such a variety of developmental needs? Are teachers able to cope with, and are curricula suited for, children at such different ages and development stages?

The single answer to all of these questions is (of course): we are not yet sure. And this leads us to our next qualitative study, targeted at understanding a little more about why so many parents are choosing early learning.  In April/May we will go to the local level and work with communities to try to answer questions such as: What do community members understand about what children need at different stages prior to going to school?

Credit: Young Lives

The demand for early learning is very much informed by parental understanding of children’s needs – yet most ongoing research (including our own so far) looks at provision and resources and how these might be re-imagined. Parents seem to want some education for their 3-6 year olds, but are these wants and needs matched by O-Class as it is currently conceived and available? Would a better match be found with a two- or three-tiered O-Class ; by linking O-Class with non-formal options for the youngest children; or should we be looking at something else altogether?

We will work with the SIP Directorate to gather communities’, teachers’, school directors’ and woreda (district) officials’ perspectives and expectations. These views can be contrasted across socio-cultural settings, in, for example, communities with a long-standing ECCE supply and in areas where nothing is yet provided before Grade 1. The findings will add an important dimension to the picture of ECCE provision in Ethiopia. They will provide the government with cues about how to increase ECCE’s relevance and efficiency.

Critically, this could also be the sort of information that grows in value. Universal one-year pre-primary education (as the government plans for 2020) must include all hardest to reach children and communities – which stand to gain the most from the potential of ECCE. Universal one-year pre-primary will require more than a one-size-fits-all solution. Deeper insights into parental and community understanding of children’s developmental needs can help government to design and redesign programs to provide for all groups.

Not only that, but a focus on the demand-side and the community can complement new and exciting early learning programmes arriving in Ethiopia, in what is gearing up to become a busy 2017.

Early learning excitement in Ethiopia for 2017

Credit: Young Lives

For starters, the government’s massive General Education Quality Improvement Program (GEQIP) has extended school capitation grants to students in O-Class. Each school’s Parent Student and Teacher Association (PTSA) can choose how to spend their grant to improve teaching and learning in O-Class. With freedom for local decision making, we will see numerous innovations with grants – some of which will work well, others less so. These will be investigated under GEQIP later this year, with a view to learning from innovations and using this to support schools in future years.

In addition, the World Bank-managed Early Learning Partnership (ELP) has this month awarded an Early Learning Systems Research program in Ethiopia. This will result in a diagnostic report in year one, identifying the key levers for change in the early learning system and prioritising those levers for further study in subsequent years.

Activities will focus on the political economy and governance of the early learning system, on the enabling environment, the scope and coverage of programs and the processes in place to monitor and assure quality in service delivery. Perhaps most excitingly, the research team will also work with government to survey children’s development and learning in O-Class and to assess the state of early learning environments. This will be a first step towards understanding children’s readiness for school and schools’ readiness for children, at a national scale, something the GEM Report calls for in its latest Report as a necessary step to help monitor Target 4. 2.

By getting down to schools and investigating community demand for early learning services and parental understandings of early learning, Young Lives can add much value to these system-level research efforts. Our ongoing strong relationship with the Ethiopian government and with the team tasked to conduct the ELP diagnostic will – we hope – also allow us to return far more than the sum of our parts in 2017. This should be good news for those keen to steer well clear of bad reception years.



  1. Is anyone thinking about what language(s) should be used for child development? I am dismayed that there is no mention of languages, since quality education with family involvement revolves around use of the child’s home language(s).

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